On the Corner of Unemployment and Disability

SOURCE: Hollie Turner SOURCE: Hollie Turner

Due to chronic pain and neurological deficits I use a wheelchair for ambulation further than 50 feet or so. I could not get through a workday without one as I cannot stand for longer than around ten minutes. I am disabled, and probably permanently so. I am being investigated for Multiple Sclerosis and already have a degenerative disc disease diagnosis.

I lost my former career due to my disability, so I have been looking for a job the past few months. I am college educated and have a letter of recommendation from my from my employer outlining my dedication to my career and saying I am a compassionate, conscientious employee. I have ample experience in customer service and high-paced jobs that require plenty of multi-tasking.

None of this has mattered, even for the lowest skilled jobs.

If you ever wanted proof that ableism exists try going to job interviews with medical equipment; a wheelchair, service dog, oxygen tank, hearing aid etc. As one disabled person told me, “you can see the ‘no’ forming in their eyes when they see you”.

See how many replies you get if your cover letter mentions you are disabled. See how many call-backs you get if you mention your disability during your interview. See how long you are kept if you employer finds out you are disabled.

Disabled people have a dismal rate of employment.

Most able people can go through their entire lives perfectly unaware that this gatekeeping ever happens (and are often quick to accuse the disabled of “embellishing” or outright faking their stories). This is what allows ableism to exist in our society: ignorance.

Ableism and unemployment for the disabled are deeply intertwined. Before we speak further of rates of employment for the disabled and how ableism contributes to its existence; we have to talk about the social versus medical view of disability.

The medical view sees disability as a problem belonging to the person. It is of no concern but to the disabled person. If a person in a wheelchair can’t get up a flight of steps, the problem is the wheelchair. If you haven’t noticed yet, this is society’s prevalent view.

The social view however, sees society as the disability. The problem isn’t the wheelchair, but the steps. Through this view every space is automatically accessible. In such a society no one is disabled because they have no barriers to living. In this view if we allowed wheelchair users to plan walkways; none would be inaccessible. If a blind person constructed intersections they would all use verbal cues for crossing. A dinner party would not be ruined by someone’s Tourette’s outburst and stimming by an autistic person would be socially acceptable.

This is the dream of many disabled people (it sounds pretty sweet just typing it out) and, hey abled people? This model doesn’t hurt you at all. I promise. I mean, think about it—how much is it really going to change your life if there are accessible bathrooms or if someone doesn’t look you in the eye while speaking to you?

Yet none of this can be achieved if the disabled are effectively excluded from the workforce (and higher education but that is a topic for another day).  

So where is the intersection with feminism? Simple; many women are disabled. In some diseases such as Multiple Sclerosis (MS) the ratio is three women to one man. Disabled women have much higher rates of sexual assault than general population and higher poverty rates. Disability affects anyone of any race, income level, gender, and belief. If your feminism doesn’t include disabled women, your feminism isn’t intersectional.

Though we are accused of not really being disabled the second it becomes uncomfortable for the able, we are disabled the second we try to achieve anything. This is the basis of both barring the disabled from work and inspiration porn.

There are many disabled people who genuinely cannot work however, and their presence and contributions are not to be ignored either. Recently in the UK a disastrous policy of “fit to work” has had a huge death toll.  Such actions are never the answer to overcoming the medical disability model.

I am not certain what abled people think when they pass over a disabled person. Perhaps they think we will be excessively ill (whether this is true or not) or somehow not able to do a task even if we have training and past experience. I can only hope they are not complaining about those on government disability as they hypocritically shove the disabled towards such an option.

It’s as if the able cannot make up their minds. We are leeches who “fake it” and should be stomped into the workforce, yet when we ask for accessibility so we can work we are told we are actually disabled! You can probably see why so many disabled people become frustrated with the medical model.

So what can you do to help?

Well if you’re in HR, not slamming the door in our faces would help a lot. Actually look over a disabled candidate’s credentials. If they could do the task before, they can again. The mentally ill are not automatically psychotic at all times, nor disorganized, nor have poor attendance. Autistic people are not a customer service nightmare.

Don’t post ableist job listings such as requiring a 50lb lifting limit for a data base entry job. If there are no actual physical limitations for the job don’t post them as requirements. Don’t claim to be “Equal Opportunity” when you require walking up a staircase as a necessary part of a radio jockey job.

And yes, these are example from job postings I have looked through.

If you’re not HR: ask for accommodations to be made if you have an opportunity to make suggestions, even if you don’t currently have any known disabled employees. You could still have disabled visitors and/or clients. If you can give advice during a hiring process, point out that the disabled deserve a chance to be hired as much as anyone else.

Open up spaces where you do have control. Networking is very important these days for employment opportunities, online and offline. If you’re running a conference, meeting, or even just a poetry reading or knitting group make it as accessible as you can. If you have a website, again, make it accessible.

The disabled have a very limited voice in the current Government and in the media. It’s not going to be anytime soon that we’ll have comparable employment rates with able people. Or anything comparable to able people. Nevertheless opening society will be for the good of all. The disabled are as varied as the human race itself, and we have much to offer if we’re allowed to give it.

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